As New Jersey continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy announced recently that mail ballots will automatically be sent to voters. The resultant surge in mail ballots underscores the urgent need for procedural safeguards to assure voters that they can cast their mail ballots with confidence.
With a ‘signature match’ system, mail-in ballots are only counted if election officials determine that the voter’s signature on a ballot “matches” the signature on an absentee ballot application or voter registration form.
As a result, thousands of ballots are rejected each election because of issues related to signature or penmanship, including a signature changing over time and disabilities affecting one’s ability to write. Moreover, New Jersey voters who cast their ballot by mail and whose signatures are deemed not to “match” are not given any pre-rejection notice or opportunity to fix any errors.
On May 18, 2020, Campaign Legal Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and an individual New Jersey voter, asking for relief for voters from the state’s flawed ballot signature match requirements.
The individual voter is William M. Riggs, a 78-year-old Middlesex County resident whose hand tremors brought on by Parkinson’s disease make it virtually impossible for him to sign his name consistently. Mr. Riggs intends to vote by mail in this year’s upcoming elections in order to protect his health from the threat of COVID-19.
Because he cannot produce a consistent signature – even at times finding his own writing illegible – Riggs fears his ballot could very likely be rejected. Without a safe way for him to fix his ballot, Riggs is at high risk of disenfranchisement.
All eligible voters should be able to have confidence that when they participate in an election, their vote will be counted. Signature comparison is not a science. Even if it was, election officials are not trained handwriting experts.
The current system produces many incorrect mismatches, which result in eligible voters having their ballot thrown away. These errors – which disproportionately affect those with disabilities, the elderly and non-native English speakers – must be fixed with urgency during this critical election year.
Even before the global pandemic, voters across the country have increasingly relied upon vote-by-mail as their preferred method of casting their ballot. Thirty-six states use some form of signature match to confirm mail-in or absentee ballots. These states must ensure voter confidence by establishing clear, accessible ways for voters to cure their ballots and ensure their votes are counted.
*Local counsel includes the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick LLP is serving as co-counsel.